Happiness is a Warm Gun by Cheryl Breo

Cheryl Breo’s memoir, Happiness is a Warm Gun: A Vietnam Story (Tellwell Talent, 68 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $10.99, paper; $3.99 Kindle), starts with a sentence about her husband that is typical of much of this small book: “He would grab me by the neck with one hand wrapped around my throat and lift me straight off the ground, my feet dangling as he pushed me up against a wall, banging the back of my head against it until it nearly cracked.”

The book, Breo tells us, is “a personal account of my life. It bears no endorsement or authorization from the Beatles or Apple Corps.” The spine of this heavily illustrated little book is made up of quotes and references to the Beatles and their songs. The book focuses on the aftermath of Cheryl’s husband Ed’s  tours of duty in the Vietnam War,  something that brought “that war home to our front door.”

The Vietnam War “and all its hell,” Breo writes, “took the man I married and made him its victim, and in turn, he made me his victim.”  In the Breo household the refrigerator was almost empty, the bills were all past due, and eventually the couple lost their house and their pets and were forced to live in sketchy neighborhoods.

“Even my Liverpool lads reminded me that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’” Breo writes. And then things got worse. Her daughter had a breakdown and Breo contemplated suicide before she took the Beatles’ advice, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” and she used that ticket.

So this blackbird took her broken wings and flew into the light of the dark black night of freedom. Ed Breo finally resigned himself to acknowledging that he needed help and went to the VA. But the VA didn’t help him enough. The “stigma” of being a Vietnam War veteran, Breao writes, lingered “like the stench of the treatment they received from this country when they returned home.”

Cheryl Breo

A walk through the airport, she writes, “became a war zone of its own, as complete strangers yelled vulgar obscenities at him; calling him a ‘baby killer,’ a ‘murderer.’ “

In the dedication, Cheryl Breo writes that John, Paul, George and Ringo “saved my life many times over.”

She was friends with her husband until the day he died after the book was published in 2017.

How they did that, I don’t know, but buy this book and read it and find out how the Beatles were a big part of the therapeutic treatment that enabled them to survive being treated horribly.

—David Willson

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And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson

Memory Lane: The 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s novel, Memory Lane: the 60’s (CreateSpace, 356 pp., $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a large book dealing with American popular culture, mostly from 1962-64. The Vietnam War does not rear its ugly head until near the end of the book.

To wit this passage from 1964: “Louie strolled down and gleefully told us that by this time next year, we’d be fighting a war in some place called Vietnam. It seemed the North Vietnamese had fired on one of our ships over in Asia.”

“By the end of 1965,” Leone writes, “almost all of us had received our notices.”

That’s exactly how it happened to me. My notice arrived late in December 1965, I accepted induction into the Army because that is what my grandfather, Homer Willson, had done. I didn’t wish to be a Marine like my father or to go into the Navy like my Uncle Roy.

Leone was told that because he broke his arm, when the cast came off and he’d done some rehab, he’d have a chance to re-enlist and be moved up to Specialist 6th class with a bonus of $8,000.  Not an offer that came my way. Far from it.

With the Vietnam War only arriving near the end, the bulk of the book deals with such early sixties subjects as rock and roll and there are references to “Teen Angel,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” That old standby, “Soldier Boy,”  pops up on page 333.

This work of comedic fiction is described as being “fictionalized, some exaggerated and some (hopefully) funny.” That’s honest enough.  I would have liked Leone to tell us about his background. On his website, Leone reports that he served in the Army as a helicopter crew chief and mechanic in the Vietnam War. In this book he chooses not to let the reader know that. His previous book was a Vietnam War memoir, Us Guys: The Army in the 60s

This book would have benefited from photos, but alas, there are none. There are things to enjoy here, but the story is so personal that some things slide by with little impact.

I recommend this book to those who don’t let anything about the 60s elude them.

The author’s website is johnleonebooks.com

—David Willson

My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

My Grandfather’s War (EK Books, 32 pp., $17.99), tells a moving story (for six-to-nine year olds) that centers on a conversation between an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather after the child learns that he had been wounded in the Vietnam War. This picture book with minimal text is beautifully written by Glyn Harper, a post-Vietnam War veteran who is one of New Zealand’s best-known military historians. Jenny Cooper provides gentle, moving illustrations.

“Why did you go to fight in Vietnam?” the little girl asks. The grandfather’s answers are pitch perfect:

“My father and both my grandfathers had fought in a war and I thought that the war in Vietnam was my turn to go,” he says. “I thought the war would be exciting and that nothing bad would happen to me. I didn’t think I would get hurt.”

Those words capture the feelings that tens of thousands of young Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders had when contemplating what do do about the draft during the Vietnam War.

Grandfather did get hurt in Vietnam. The war he goes on to say, was “horrible.” The Vietnamese people “did not like us. They wanted us to leave. We were not really fighting the war for them. And we all knew we couldn’t win this war.”

He goes on to say that when the troops came home “no one thanked us for going to the war. They just wanted us to go away. Then a lot of us started to get sick from all the chemicals that had been used. Not just us; but our families, too. Some people have been so sick they can’t walk any more. Some have even died.”

Grandpa hits the nail on the head. And so does this gentle book, which has a post-script containing a very short and very good factual summary of the Vietnam War, concentrating on its legacy among Vietnam War veterans in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

—Marc Leepson

Standing Up After Saigon by Thuhang Tran with Sharon Orlopp

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In practice, communism betrays itself when, under the guise of “reeducation of the masses,” party leaders treat their own citizens as slaves. The communist theory of equality among people vanishes amid the chaos of culling the “un-trainables,” a situation that prevailed devastatingly when communists took control of Russia, China, Cambodia—and Vietnam.

In Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention  (Brown Books, 190 pp.; $17.21 Hard), Thuhang Tran, with the help of Sharon Orlopp, describes what happened in Vietnam after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A dual memoir, the book studies the resilience of one family fractured by the ending of the Vietnam War. The family’s youngest child, Thuhang, and her father, Chinh, take turns in narrating life in Vietnam under communist rule for the family members who could not leave in 1975. They also describe Chinh’s determination to make a new life in America for his family. Their recollections are inspirational.

A polio victim reduced to crawling and squatting, Thuhang—along with her mother, brother, and sister—survived fifteen years of fragile existence in Vietnam until they were reunited with her father, a South Vietnamese Air Force air traffic controller who fled as the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon. Chinh ended up in the United States. For five years, the family believed he had been killed in a helicopter crash. Eventually, he found them. It took ten more years for him to fulfill the requirements of America’s Orderly Departure Program and get his family out of Vietnam.

Although Thuhang is the principal subject of the book, the actions of Chinh and his wife Lieu read like a manual for protecting children. Lieu guided the children through war, forced farm labor, homelessness, famine, and stark poverty. She used bribes and other ruses to keep her son out of the army, including during the 1979-89 war with Cambodia. From America, Chinh provided a flow of money and other help.

Initially, Thuhang’s life in the United States consisted mainly of surgery and lengthy physical rehabilitation that enabled her to stand and walk. She then attained American citizenship and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has spent many years as a software engineer in Texas and Arkansas.

Thuhang also has organized and worked with groups that aid needy Vietnamese children. Chinh has helped Vietnamese refugees ease the transition after moving from an Eastern to a Western culture.

Thuhang’s brother and sister started businesses and raised families in America. They also they have endured their share of hardship.

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Thuhang Tran as a child in Vietnam

Standing Up After Saigon provides a great amount of information about the assimilation of Vietnamese into America. It also addresses the plight of refugees and the increasingly controversial acceptance of immigrants into the United States.

Co-author Sharon Orlopp is an editor and author who retired as Walmart’s Global Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Part of her job was teaching the world about different cultures.

The authors’ website is standingupaftersaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman